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Shalom ASZ

by Yitzhak CHARLASZ

(From the Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature, First Volume, published by the World Congress of Yiddish Culture [united with “TSIKO”], New York. 1956, pp. 183-192).

Born in Kutno, Poland, according to his birth certificate on January 1, 1880[1]. According to his mother's reckoning – four days before Passover. His father, Mr. Moshe ‘Gąbiner’[2], came from a family of ritual slaughterers and was somewhat of a Torah scholar and a philanthropist. He traded in sheep and also ran a guesthouse. His mother, Malka, née Widawska, his father's second wife and much younger than him[3], came from an erudite family in Łęczyca. At home, Shalom grew up “between two worlds”: on one side, his full brothers – tall, healthy boys who traded with butchers and Gentiles and loved their eventful life (they later moved to the United States and settled there). From the other side, several step-brothers who prayed in chassidic shtiebels and walked around dressed in silk capotes. Ten children were raised at home. His parents hoped that Szalom, their youngest child, would become a rabbi, so they kept him separated from his brothers and sent him to the best teachers, from whom “the richest children of the city” were taught (among them as well was the later portrayer of Asz's childhood: Dr. Abraham Gliksman). After the cheder, he went on to the Beit Midrash where he studied by himself. At age 15-16, he began to read “non-religious books”. Gliksman recounts that at their home, which was the “only enlightened Jewish home in the town,” they were reading Hebrew Haskalah[4] books together. Asz and his colleagues also discovered the German classics, and as they learned a little German from Mendelssohn's German translation of Psalms which was published in Hebrew letters, they read the works of Schiller, Goethe, and Heine. Asz already knew full pieces by Heine. Rumors were spreading in the town that Shalom was a heretic, and he ran away from home. He was then seventeen years old. “Until that time,” explained Asz about himself, “I was a devout Jew. Later I became convinced that the simple Jew, the common man, was on a higher ethical level compared to the well-educated Chassid.” Asz went to relatives' home in a village, studied there with the children, and meanwhile watched the lives of Polish peasants. Asz said “this was my elementary school of life.” He spent the next two years in Włocławek where he threw himself into various occupations, until he “discovered a stable way to earn a living: writing letters for those who could not write by themselves.” He managed to write love letters and that gave him an “opportunity to look into the most hidden corners of life.” This was his “high school” – as he himself put it. In those years, Asz was reading Tolstoy, Hauptmann[5], and in particular Bolesław Prus[6] (”in the original”) whose story, “Kamizelka[7], made on Asz “an unforgettable impression”. He already knew of Y. L. Perec from the latter's work, “HaUgav[8], the small collection of Hebrew poems that he knew by heart.

Asz himself already had started writing, at first in Hebrew. By chance however, he came across Perec's “Shtreimel” and “Bontshe Shvayg[9]. Asz wrote in his memoirs about Perec “I read them through and was very impressed,” (Tsukunft, New York, May 1915). In the first months of 1900, Asz sailed on a ship over the Vistula River to see Perec in Warsaw, to show him his own writings. Perec recommended Asz to write in Yiddish. By the way, when he was in Perec's home, he became acquainted with H. D. Nomberg[10] and Abraham Reisen[11]. A few months later, Asz once again came to Warsaw from Włocławek and read to Perec his first two stories in Yiddish. On Perec's recommendation, Dr. Yosef Lurie[12], the editor of “Der Yid[13], published in issue 48, 1900, Asz's first story, “Moshele”. Asz settled in Warsaw and published short stories, pictures and sketches in the periodic press: “Der Yid” and “Di Yudishe Folks Zeitung[14], and in Hebrew translation in “HaDoar” and “HaTsfira[15].

Beginning 1903, Asz's first collection of stories was published in print under the title “In A Shlekhter Tsayt[16] (Warsaw, 79 pp.). Before this, Asz published two booklets in Hebrew. The Yiddish collection was very warmly received by Baal-Makhshoves[17]. Sadness and gloom filled the stories of Asz's first anthology. At the time, Asz married Mathilde[18] or Madge Szpira, a daughter of a prominent Hebrew teacher and Hebrew-Polish writer. She had a great influence on Asz contributed greatly to the further development of his talent. In 1904, Asz serially published in Fraynd (St. Petersburg) his

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first major work, “Dos Shtetl[19] (in book form, Minsk 1905). With a modern, romantic perspective toward earlier Jewish life, Dos Shtetl marked out and defined Asz's place in Yiddish literature. In that same year of 1904, Asz began his career as a playwright. He composed his first “theatrical piece in two acts” titled Tsurik Gekumen[20]. It was first published in Hebrew translation Yatzah u'Chazar in HaShiloach, 1904, and then in the original Yiddish in Perec's Yidishe Biblyotek, number 3 and 4, also in 1904 (in book form it appeared in Warsaw in 1909 under the title Mitn shtrom[21]). In the summer of 1904, Asz met Polish writers in Zakopane. One of them, Stanisław Witkiewicz, translated Asz's drama into Polish and in December 1904 it was performed in a Polish theater in Cracow. Asz's second play was Meshiekhs Tsaytn[22], a tragedy in three acts (in a later edition, with the subtitle: “A kholem fun mayn folk[23], and in a next edition: “A tsaytshtik in dray aktn[24], Vilna, 1906, second edition, Vilna, 1907). Meshiekhs Tsaytn was almost simultaneously translated into Polish, Russian, and German, and on February 12, 1906, with the Russian title “On the Path to Zion”, it was performed in St. Petersburg with the actress Komissarzhevskaya[25] in the role of Justine, and on July 15, 1906 on the Polish stage in Warsaw. At the same time, Asz wrote short stories and sketches which were published in the form of notebooks by “Kultur” publishing house in Minsk and which in part were published in Der Nayer Veg[26], the organ of the Zionist Socialists in Vilna where was also published for the first time the one-act drama, Um Vinter[27], 1906. In 1905, Asz also wrote notes on the 1905 Revolution in Warsaw, with the title “Momentn”, published in 1908 by St Petersburg's “Progres”, Warsaw, 38 pp.

In 1907, Asz's drama Got fun nekome[28] was published in St Petersburg's publisher “Tsukunft”. It was performed in various theaters around the world. This drama caused a great deal of controversy in the Yiddish press. In 1908, Asz read aloud before writers in Berlin his play Shapse Tzvi[29] (published in Monthly Literary Writings, #3) – an effort to portray the struggle between earthly lust and heavenly purity in the Shabbetai Zevi movement. The forms were too philosophical, and the drama was never performed on the stage. In the years 1907-1908 Asz also wrote two one-act plays entitled Amnon un Tamar and Der Zindiker[30]. In 1908 the St Petersburg's publisher “Shimin” in Warsaw published Yugnt, a collection of stories that he wrote over the years 1902-1907. Two of them – “Dos koyler gesl” (The Koło alley) and “Der Yung Mitn Kind[31] – have illuminated the second wave of Asz's artistic creation, his full-blooded realism, in opposition to the romanticism of Dos shtetl. The two currents were there mixed together, the raw nature of primitive man was wrapped in a romantic longing for higher worlds, something that was later repeated more than once in the work of Asz.

Asz wisited Eretz Israel for the first time in 1908, and described his impressions in a series of travelogues. Under the influence of this visit, he also wrote his biblical historical scenes (published in book form in 1911, Vilnius, with the title Eretz-Israel, and in Warsaw as In Eretz Israel). In 1908, Asz participated in the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference and in his lecture, he proposed that the treasures of ancient Hebrew literature should be translated into Yiddish. He himself translated the “Book of Ruth” into Yiddish (published in Dos Naye Lebn[32], New York, 1910). Early in 1909, Asz completed his drama play Yikhus[33] depicting the demise of an old Jewish aristocratic house falling through a misalliance into the hands of parvenus. At the end of 1909, Asz visited United States for the first time, wrote there and had performed on stage (without particular success) his first comedy on Jewish life in the New World, Der Landsman (Warsaw, 1911). Returning to Poland, Asz published over the years 1910-1914 a number of shorter and longer works, some of which became milestones in Asz's own works as well as in Yiddish literature in general. Among the smaller novel from those years was Erd[34], a tale of Polish peasant life (Warsaw, 1910). In 1911 the same publishing house published the longer story Amerike (in later editions, it was Keyn Amerike or Yosele), a moving portrayal of the sad fate of a Jewish immigrant child on the way to the United States and in the new, foreign world. In 1912, he published in the St. Petersburg's Di Yidishe Velt the two-act play Der Bund fun di Shvakhe[35] about Polish artist life (performed in German at the Chamber-Theatre in Berlin). In 1913, Kletskin Publishers (Vilna) published Rabbi Shlomo Nagid[36], “a poem of Jewish life,” one of Asz's most achieved work, through which he clearly delineated the boundaries of his philosophical horizons. In the same year aoppeared (in Vilnius) Meshelekh fun Khumash[37], the dramas Di Yorshim[38] and Yiftakhs Tokhter[39], the poem Khurban Yerushlaim[40] (published in Di Yidishe Velt 1-2, Vilna, 1913), and also his first novel Mary, which together with its second part entitled Der Veg tsu Zikh[41] (published in Di Yidishe Velt, Vilnius, 1914), constituted an unsuccessful effort to create a diaspora novel – i.e., to give a broad socio-cultural picture of Jewish life in different cities and countries – in the cities of the former Pale[42], in the centers of semi-assimilated Jewishness, St. Petersburg and Berlin, as well as in the new Eretz Israel's yishuv.

In those years, Asz lived in a number of different countries in Europe, then settled as a resident in Paris but, with the outbreak of WWI he moved to New York, where he wrote the drama Far Undzer Gloybn[43] and a series of new novels (published by chapters in Forverts) and short stories. In 1916, he published in book form (Forverts Publishing House) Motke Ganav[44], a social novel, in the first two parts of which Asz depicts Motke's childhood and youth, were highly artistic, while the last part seems like artificially added on and reminding more of literary crime stories. In 1918, Onkl Mozes was published, Asz's first novel of American Jewish life. In those early American years, Asz also published: Der Yidisher Soldat[45] and other war stories (1918); Khurban Poyln, Amerikaner Dertseylungen[46] – among them, Leybl in der Heym, Leybl in Amerike[47] and Di Kinder fun Abraham[48], as well as Di Rayze keyn Kalifornye[49]; the story Yunge Yorn[50] (in book form together with other stories, New York, 1918), the

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dramatic works: Dos Heylike Meydl oder a Shnirl Perl[51] (1916); Ver Iz der Foter?[52] (1918) and the historical novel: Kiddush HaShem[53] (1919), which was a new artistic achievement. Asz wrote this novel under the influence of the pogroms in Ukraine of 1918-1919 and the historical background of the decrees of 1648-1649[54]. A story of a great national pathos, written with a deep insight into Jewish history, it became a classic work in Yiddish literature, a magnificent and appreciated source for Jewish schools.

During the time of WWI, Asz took was involved in relief works for the victims of the war and on missions to the American Jewish Committee (spring 1919) visiting Western and Eastern Europe. In 1921, he came to Poland where he was received with great honor and respect by the entire Jewish intelligentsia. His drama “Motke the Thief” was then the “hit” of Jewish theater. It was given hundreds of performances on the Jewish stage of Warsaw and other cities. In 1924, Asz settled down for a long time in Warsaw, where he often appeared for speeches concerning his unique Jewish cultural constructions, and demonstrating, on the one hand, his sympathies for Eretz Israel and Hebrew, and – on the other hand – led a fight against extreme Hebraism in the name of Yiddish culture and the Jewish school. In 1926, after Piłsudski's coup, there was an uproar against Asz, after he published (in Haynt, Warsaw, October 22, 1926) an “Open Letter to Marshal Piłsudski.” In his letter, he praised and commended the “noble knight” whose sword “liberated the Polish soul.”

In the 1920s, Asz published the dramas: Der Toyter Mentsh[55] (1920), Maranen[56] (1922), Yosef (1924), Reverend Doktor Silber (1927), Koyln[57] (1928) and three social novels of American Jewish life: Di Muter[58] (1925, 407 pp.), rich in individual artistic depictions, particularly of Jewish bohemian life in New York, mastered but not completely; Toyt-Urteyl[59] aka “Electric Chair” (Warsaw, 1926, 182 pp.), a longer story of general American life and Khayim Lederers Tsurikkumen[60] (Warsaw, 1927, 180 pp.), a social psychological novel about a former radical woker who became rich and, feeling his spiritual emptiness, returns to the environment of his comrades. In 1926 he published Di Kishefmakherin fun Kastilyen[61] (Warsaw, 144 pp.) – a second historical novel depicting Jewish martyrdom and Mayn Rayze Iber Shpanye[62] (ibidem, 442 pp.). In 1929, he published Peterburg in Warsaw (442 pp.). This is the first book in the trilogy Farn Mabul[63] the second book, Varshe (Warsaw, 442 pp.) was published by the same publisher in 1930 and the third book, Moskve (Moscow, 516 pp.) in 1931. In the trilogy, Asz was trying (1) to describe the life of Jewish big bourgeoisie and Russified intelligentsia in St. Petersburg from before 1914; (2) to give a complete picture of all classes of Jewish society in Warsaw and Łódź during the stormiest two decades of the twentieth century and (3) a cross section of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917-1920) in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities in Russia. The internal connection of the three novel is weak, the main character, the young Zachary Mirkin, is unclear and unsteady. In the first book and especially in the third, one can feel strongly the foreign influences and therefore Varshe is so full of many-sided depictions of ways of life and as well with the liveliness of the individual characters. After the trilogy, Farn Mabul, came Gots Gefangene, der Goyrl fun a Froy[64], a psychological novel, was published in Warsaw in 1933 (261 pp.). In 1934, Der Tehilim-Yid[65] (Warsaw, 611 pp.) was published, a kind of summing up of motifs which were scattered over Asz's previous works. Belief is the essence of the novel, a higher belief, standing above form or ritual and embracing all kind of beliefs.

In 1937, he published Baym Opgrunt[66] (Warsaw), a novel from the eve of Hitler's time in Germany and in 1938, Dos Gezang fun Tol[67] (ibidem, 215 pp.), a poetic depiction of the lives of the pioneers in Eretz Israel. In 1930, people in Warsaw celebrated Asz's double jubilee – his 50th birthday and 30th year of literary creation. In 1933, there was another uproar over Asz's name in relation to his acceptance of a medal from the Piłsudski government. Asz lived in France and Poland in the 1930s and also traveled to various other European countries.

In 1935, he paid a visit to New York. Then, he returned to Paris and in 1938, he left again Europe and settled in the United States.

In the late 1930s and the 1940s, Asz wrote his Christ novels and theological-philosophical essays and articles. In Buenos Aires and New York, in 1939, his novel Der Man fun Natseres appeared in English translation (original version was first published in New York only in 1943, in two volumes). This was a work of great scope. With a vast body of life depicted in three cultural settings – pagan, Roman-Hellenic, and Jewish – it had no equal in Yiddish literature. It stands out also with its mastery of portraying individual characters, in addition to the main character who was too “heavenly” abstract to have flesh and blood. In too many places – and this is the book's major artistic flaw – Asz faithfully followed the New Testament. Nevertheless (and perhaps for this reason), the English version was enthusiastically received by the serious English press. In a large part of the Jewish press Asz and his book were very sharply attacked, mainly from a religious and national point of view. Asz responded with a string of articles and press interviews in the Yiddish and English press and indirectly with the pamphlet “What I Believe” (New York, 1941). The controversy grew, with some even suspecting Asz of “dissidence” and national treason. The novel was not published in the Forverts, to which Asz had regularly collaborated for decades. The doors of the other Yiddish dailies were also closed to him. Only a small number of Yiddish, Hebrew, and English-Yiddish newspapers did not show solidarity with those who boycotted the writer. Some representatives of the Yiddish critique rated Der Man fun Natseres, from a purely literary standpoint, as one of the highest,

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“if not the highest”, artistic achievement in recent Yiddish literature.

In 1943, Putnam published the English translation of the second book of Asz's Christ novels: “The Apostle”, which was not yet published in the original Yiddish. This novel describes the personality and the surrounding life of the apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus). With regard to background descriptions and characterizations, “The Apostle” is less complex and therefore fuller and more compact than Der Man fun Natseres, but even here the author's artistic qualities suffered from the insufficiently critical following of the interpretation of the gospels. This hindered the freedom of the artist's imagination in forming the main character of the novel. In 1949, “Mary”, the English translation of the third book of the series was published (with the same publisher, Putnam), artistically much weaker and, from the point of view of Christian symbols, much sharper than the previous two books. The struggle against Asz, which had ceased for a while, was then renewed and with greater energy.

In the interval (1943) he became a regular contributor to Morgn-Frayhayt[68], something that both sides[69] declared they were not responsible for. Asz's connection to this extreme left wing political publication did not last long. During the two or three years of their “friendship” by necessity, this left-wing publisher published Asz's stories, Hitlers Geburt[70] (64 pp.) and A Yidish Kind in Shnas 5695[71] which later entered in Asz's anthology of ghetto stories entitled Der Brenendiker Dorn[72] (New York, 1946, 285 pp.), a collection which included Yitgadal veYitkadash, Kristus in Geto, A Kind Firt dem Veg[73], and other works. In 1948, IKUF[74] published two volumes of Asz's selected works: 1) Dos Shtetl, Reb Shlomo Nagid, and Der Farborgener Bokher[75] and 2) Dos Gezang fun Tol and other works. In 1946, the novel “East River” was published (Laub Publishing., 514 pp.) in which, with a host of masterful social depictions of early Jewish life in New York's East Side, Asz brought to life his realistic lifestyle idea that two faiths (Judaism and Christianity) could live together under the same roof, not just under the same heavens – an idea that Asz had sought to correct since Dos Shtetl, where prayers from the synagogue and from the church unite in the air and ascend to one God, as well as in a whole series of youth stories (Mentshn un Geter, A Karnaval-Nakht[76]), through Der Tehilim-Yid, until the Christ trilogy. In his last years, Asz published three new works: Moshe (New York, 1951, 491 pp.), a biblical novel; Grosman un Zun (New York, 1954, 366 pp) in English translation “A Passage in the Night”; “The Prophet” Putnam Publishing, 1955, 344 pp. (initially in English).

Asz was a restless man, who never in his life settled at a given place for long. In his last years to, he extensively travelled across the United States, Europe and the state of Israel, where there was a major public reception for him in Tel Aviv; in 1954. The articles, for and against Asz, which were frequently published in the Israeli press, gave the impression that only a part of the Jewish intelligentsia made peace with him.

All editions of Asz's works in Yiddish up to 1925 have been enumerated by Z. Reisen in Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 183-185. There is also a list of translations of Asz's works into Hebrew, Russian, Polish, and German – also until 1925. Z. Zilbercwajg's Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater[77], vol. 1, pp. 105-111, contains a comprehensive list of Asz's dramas and comedies and their translations into foreign languages, as well as of their performances on the Yiddish and foreign-language stages until 1930. From that time, almost all of Asz's works have been translated into English, and new translations and new editions of earlier translations into Hebrew, Russian, Polish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Hungarian, Romanian and other languages.

The literature on Asz is very rich and, for the most part, scattered over different magazines and languages. A partial bibliography covering what people have written about Asz can be found in Zalman Reisen's Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 173-186, and in Z. Zilbercwajg's Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater, vol. 1, pp. 110-111; Sholem Asz on himself, Der Veker, New York, October 4, 1930 (reprinted from Naye Folkstsaytung, Warsaw, no. 206, 1930); Literarishe Bleter, Warsaw, December 19, 1930, Asz's Jubilee-issue; M. Zilberfarb, Sholem Ash, der Politisher, Gezelshaftlekher Tuer[78], Tsukunft, New York, June 1921; Yidishe Kultur, New York, January 1955 (on Asz's 75th birthday); Kh. Liberman, Sholem Ash un Kristntum[79], New York, 1950; Dr. A. Mukdoni, Sholem Ash Iz Avek fun Yidish, Tsukunft, New York, March 1950, (about Asz's Grosman un Zun in English translation); N. Mayzil, Sholem Ashs Ershte Kritiker[80], Yidishe Kultur, New York, March-April 1948; Sh. Niger, Dertseylers un Romanistn[81], part 2, New York, 1946, pp. 320-531; Moshe Oved, Vizyonen un Eydelshteyner[82], London, 1931, pp. 75-80, 203-215; Leo Finkelsztein, Loshn Yidish un Yidisher Kiem[83], Mexico, 1954, pp. 172-201; Av. Kahan, Sholem Ashs Nayer Veg[84], New York, 1941, 96 pp.; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Aszs Verk in der Yidish-Veltlekher Shul[85], Fraye Arbeter Shtime, New York, August 12, 1950; Hilel Rogof, Der Gayst fun Forverts, New York, 1954, pp. 73-75; M. Rawicz, in Fraye Arbeter Shtime, 1941 (no. 35), 1944 (no. 10-14), 1945 (no. 46), 1947 (no. 33), 1950 (no. 8-10); Y. Rapoport, in Tsukunft, New York, April 1954; Yitzhak Elhanan Roncz, Amerike in der Yidisher Literatur[86], New York, 1945; Avraham Reisen, Epizodn fun Mayn Lebn[87], part 1, Vilnius, 1929, part 2, Vilnius, 1929, part 3 Vilnius, 1935; Dr. Y. Szacki, about the novel Moshe, in Der Veker, New York, August 1952; Talusz, in Yidishe Shrayber, Miami Beach, 1953.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. according to Wikipedia and Britannica November 1st, according to Kutno Book of Residents October 1stReturn
  2. May 1st 1825, Gąbin – August 8th, 1905, Kutno. Return
  3. October 1st, 1850, Łęczyca – 1938, Kutno. Return
  4. Hebrew, “Enlightenment”. Return
  5. Gerhart Hauptmann, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912. Return
  6. pen name of Aleksander Głowacki (August 20, 1847, Hrubieszów, Poland – May 19, 1912, Warsaw). Polish novelist and journalist. Return
  7. Polish, “The Waistcoat”. Return
  8. Hebrew: “The Pipe Organ”. Return
  9. Yiddish “Bontshe the Silent”. Return
  10. Hersh David Nomberg (14 April 1876 – 21 November 1927), Yiddish writer, journalist and essayist. Return
  11. (April 8, 1876 – April 2, 1953) Yiddish writer, poet and editor. Elder brother of Zalman Reisen. Return
  12. (1871–1937), Zionist leader and Hebrew educator. Return
  13. Yiddish, “The Jew”. Return
  14. Yiddish, “The Jewish People's Newspaper”. Return
  15. Hebrew: “The Mail” and “The Siren”. Return
  16. Yiddish, “In a Terrible Time” Return
  17. pen name of Israel Isidor Elyashev (1873-1924). Neurologist and first Yiddish literary critic. Return
  18. Blima Matla Szpira, in Kutno's Book of Residents. Return
  19. Yiddish, “The Town”. Return
  20. Yiddish “Returned” Return
  21. Yiddish, “With the Current” Return
  22. Yiddish, “Messianic times”. Return
  23. Yiddish, “A Dream of My People”. Return
  24. Yiddish: “A Piece in Three Acts”. Return
  25. Vera Fyodorovna Komissarzhevskaya (8 November 1864 – 23 February 1910). Return
  26. Yiddish, “The New Way”. Return
  27. Yiddish: “During Winter”. Return
  28. Yiddish, “God of Vengeance”. Return
  29. “ Shabbetai Zevi”. Return
  30. Yiddish, “The Sinner”. Return
  31. Yiddish, “Youngster with Child”. Return
  32. Yiddish, “The New Life”. Return
  33. Hebrew, “Pedigree”. Return
  34. Yiddish, “Earth”. Return
  35. Yiddish; “The Ties of the Weak”. Return
  36. Hebrew, “The Wealthy Rabbi Shlomo”. Return
  37. Yiddish, “Stories from the Pentateuch”. Return
  38. Hebrew: “The Heirs”. Return
  39. Yiddish, “Yiftach's Daughter”. Return
  40. Hebrew, “The Destruction of Jerusalem”. Return
  41. Yiddish, “The Route to Oneself”. Return
  42. Pale of Settlements, the parts of Russian Empire where the Jews were authorized to live. Return
  43. Yiddish, “For Our Beliefs”. Return
  44. Yiddish, “Motke the Thief”. Return
  45. Yiddish, “The Jewish Soldier”. Return
  46. Yiddish, “The Holocaust in Poland, American Stories”. Return
  47. Yiddish, “Leybl at home, Leybl in America”. Return
  48. Yiddish, “The Children of Abraham”. Return
  49. Yiddish, “The Trip to California”. Return
  50. Yiddish, “Young Years”. Return
  51. Yiddish, “The Holy Girl or a String of Pearls”. Return
  52. Yiddish, “Where Is the Father?”. Return
  53. Hebrew, “Martyrdom”. Return
  54. linked to Chmielnicki's massacres in Ukraine. Return
  55. Yiddish, “The Dead Man”. Return
  56. Yiddish, “Marranos”. Return
  57. Yiddish, “Coals”. Return
  58. Yiddish, “The mother”. Return
  59. Yiddish, “Death Sentence” Return
  60. Yiddish, “The Return of Chaim Lederer”. Return
  61. Yiddish, “The Witch of Castile”. Return
  62. Yiddish, “My Trip Through Spain”. Return
  63. Yiddish, “Before the Flood”. Return
  64. Yiddish, “God's Prisoners, the Destiny of a Woman”. Return
  65. Yiddish, “The Psalms' Jew”. Return
  66. Yiddish, “At the Abyss”. Return
  67. Yiddish, “Song of the Valley”. Return
  68. Yiddish, “Morning Freedom”, extreme-left publication. Return
  69. meaning supporters and critics of Asz. Return
  70. Yiddish, “Hitler's Birth”. Return
  71. Yiddish, “A Jewish Child in the Year 1944/1945”. Return
  72. Yiddish, “The Burning Bush”. Return
  73. Yiddish, “A Child Leads the Way”. Return
  74. Yiddish, “Yiddishe KUltur Farband”, “Jewish Cultural Association”. Return
  75. Yiddish, “The Borrowed Boy”. Return
  76. Yiddish, “Men and God”, “A Carnival Night”. Return
  77. Yiddish, “Handbook of Yiddish theater”. Return
  78. Yiddish, “Shalom Asz, the Political, Communal Leader”. Return
  79. Yiddish, “Shalom Asz and Christianity”. Return
  80. Yiddish, “Shalom Asz's First Critic”. Return
  81. TN! Yiddish, “Narrators and Novelists”. Return
  82. Yiddish, “Visions and Gems”. Return
  83. Yiddish, “The Yiddish Language and Jewish Survival”. Return
  84. Yiddish, “ Shalom Asz's New Pathway”. Return
  85. Yiddish, “Asz's Work in the Secular Jewish School”. Return
  86. Yiddish, “America in Yiddish literature”. Return
  87. Yiddish, “Episodes from my life”. Return

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At the Funeral of Shalom ASZ's Mother in Kutno
(Impressions from our special envoy)


(Reprinted from a photocopy of the “Today” of Warsaw, where was published the report by Y. Sh. Goldsztajn about the funeral of Asz's mother).

Receiving Kutno's painful telephone news of the death of Shalom Asz's mother, the editors decided today to send a delegation to the funeral procession to pay their last respects to the mother of a great Jewish writer on behalf of our editorial board. The delegation, consisting of Mr. Nehemiah Finkelsztajn, Y. M. Najman, and the author of these lines, arrived in Kutno Friday early in the morning and traveled to Shalom Asz's brother, Mr. Wolf Asz, the elder of Shalom. Asz's brothers, who lived in Kutno and was a prominent landlord and community worker there. The deceased lived with him, in his own house.

In the mourning house, apart from Mr. Wolf Asz, we met the two other sons of the deceased who live in Poland – Mr. Yaakov-Yehoshua Asz of Warsaw, who is one of the most prominent leather importers on Franciscan St and Mr. Melech Asz of Łódź, as well as their wives, children and other relatives. There is a deep sorrow in the home. From every corner comes grief and despair.

With wide eyes, the children tell of the last minutes of their mother, who died at the advanced age of 91[1] and was a type of Jewish woman that is rare to meet. Until the last minutes of her life, she was completely mentally alert, neat, cheerful, independent.

On the last day of her life, her son from Warsaw came to visit his ill mother. Her joy was great. She asked to informed “her Shalom” in America, that he should come because she wanted to see him. When the children asked if he should be telegraphed, she exclaimed “God forbid, no, he would be also frightened and worry that something happened. Just write a letter telling him to come.” Half an hour later, she was not alive anymore.

Her husband died 32 years ago. Since then, she lived only for her children. She had given birth to six sons and three daughters, two of whom died – the eldest son and youngest daughter, both in the United States. Two sons and two daughters are currently in the United States, not counting Shalom Asz, who is currently temporarily living there. 35 years ago, she was in America with the children for a few years, later she moved there, but she did not want to leave the children in Poland and so she moved back here.

She was a trembling mother over her children but most of all, she was attached to her great son Shalom Asz, whom she called “my comfort, my jewel”. And trembled and worried about him. The love was reciprocal. The great poet

[Page 256]

literally worshiped her and when he celebrated his fiftieth birthday with a grand parade in Warsaw, eight years ago, he seated his elderly mother next to him and she was honored. At every premiere of Shalom Asz's stage work, she used to come to Warsaw and to Łódź and rejoiced like a little child to her son's success. A few days ago, at the premiere of “Kiddush Hashem”, the old woman was unable to attend in Kutno and came to Warsaw. Although, in the year 1995 Szalom Asz was determined to settle in Israel, he had not decided which place he would live in. The current mayor of the amazingly growing town, Bat Yam, David Ben-Ari, invited him. The great author was invited to this fine town, with its splendid Mediterranean coast, to build, as he wished, the most up to date and best home. After the death of Szalom Asz this house, with its entire contents, pictures and antique collections, was given by Mrs. Asz to the municipality of Bat-Yam, to be used as an Asz museum and cultural centre – Szalom Asz's House.


Shalom ASZ's mother. Portrait by a young Kutno painter, Chaim TYBER


How far she was keeping track of her son's greatness can be seen in the way she collected every piece of newspaper clipping in which her son was mentioned, a critique or news about him. She kept it as a sanctuary. A few days before her death, she passed it on to the children, as an inheritance. It was a large package. We unpacked it and found hundreds of newspaper clippings about Shalom Asz's work in “Today” and in old newspapers and magazines from decades ago. Each novel was packed in a separate parcel and bound with silk ribbons of different color. She did not miss anything…

… Among the newspaper clippings, we even found an election call to vote in the Sejm elections for number 16. On the edge of the paper, Shalom Asz wrote down a word with a pencil and the old woman kept it. On some packages was written in a trembling handwriting: “Your faithful mother, Malka-Frajda”.

Half an hour before her death, one of the daughters-in-law moistened a handkerchief with perfume and wanted to perfume her. The ill mother did not let her do it and said, “This handkerchief belongs to Shalom, he forgot it when last time he came to see me and therefore it should not be touched”.

* * *

We pay a visit to the premises of the Kutno Jewish community. The chairman, Yehoshua Falc[2], tells us:

– Three years ago, the old woman came up to the community premises and declared: “I am afraid that after my death, the community will give me an honorary ground. And I do not want a free ground.” With trembling hands, she took out three bags of silver money and said: “Here is two hundred złotys and give me a receipt for it. My Shalom will choose the land for me.” Two years ago, when Shalom Asz was in Kutno, he went to the cemetery with the president and selected a plot of land. But in the middle, he sat up and said: “There is no need. The Almighty will help and my mother will still have a long, blessed year…”

We're going to the mourning house.

Many Chassidic Jews and young men sit and study Mishnayot with a heartbreaking melody. A group of elderly women lead through the purification at the home of the deceased. Two o'clock, the funeral procession begins. Hundreds of people gathered on the street. All came to pay their last respects to the mother of Shalom Asz, who was embraced in the town with great affection and glory. At the head, three men carry the bier on their shoulders. These are the three sons of the deceased. However, the most famous of them is missing, the great Shalom Asz. His place is occupied by a foreign Jew.

Hundreds of mourners follow the bier. The highest dignitaries of the city, town councilmen, the notables of the community, where Shalom Asz is an honorary member, the Kutner rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak-Yehuda Trunk.

The bier passes in front of the municipal school. The number of followers continues to grow.

At the cemetery, the bier is placed near the gate. The black cloth is removed and in the name of the editorial staff of “Today” Y. M. Najman speaks:

– The editors of “Today”, began the speaker, have placed upon me the duty to say goodbye to Shalom Asz's mother, the mother of a great Jewish writer and a great son of the Jewish people.

Shalom Asz always remembered his mother as a symbol of a torn Jewish heart, which trembles and worries over her children, whether near or away. The deceased was a most blessed Jewish mother, because she gave us a Shalom Asz.

With his work, Asz portrayed Jewish motherhood with great piety, and he took this model from his mother. He carried out her rare qualities and the language she had put in his mouth.

Shalom Asz is not with his mother now. He could not see her, but his heart and soul are now with her, with this woman, in whom Asz saw not only a mother, but a model of a Jewish woman.

It is not known whether Jews are a race or a people, but one thing is certain: the strongest trait in them is the feeling of family, which is inherited from mother to

[Page 257]

child and this goes like a red thread across the work of Shalom Asz.

Near this very coffin, we have the feeling that not only a mother gave birth to a son, but a son gave birth to a mother. Shalom Asz shone with his creation and crowned his mother and she rewarded him for it, with her motherly loyalty and love. When the generation of children she left behind will say kaddish here, over the coffin of their mother, they will have to remember their older brother, who was not destined to accompany his mother. And as the city and its leaders stand before this bier, they must remember that they stand before the woman who gave birth to a son who made Kutno famous on the world map and made the city a symbol and an emblem.

After the eulogy, the bier is carried to the open grave. The deceased is taken down, according to a Kutno custom, lying on a pillow which is placed under the head – and then the burial begins.

After the burial, the city cantor Polakewicz says an “el maleh rachamim” prayer, in the name of all the children, of Shalom Asz and of the editorial staff of “Today”.

Returning from the burial, the congregation remains standing in front of the gate of the cemetery and the brothers of Shalom Asz stand up and say kaddish with heartbreaking voices, choking on their tears.

The Kutner rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak-Yehuda Trunk (a grandson of Rabbi 'Shiele Kutner), was also planning to mourn, but due to the fact that the burial took place on Friday afternoon, no one should mourn.

For an entire Friday, Kutno lived under the impression of the funeral. No matter that Friday was market day, from which half of the city draws livelihoods, each and everyone abandoned their shops and workshops and came to pay their last respects to the mother of a great poet. Wherever they went and wherever they stood, people spoke about the deceased, about her wisdom, piety and extraordinary energy, which lasted until the last day of her life.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Malka Frajda Asz née Widawska (October 1, 1850, Łęczyca – 1938, Kutno), so she was at best 88. She was the second wife of Mosze Asz. Return
  2. probably Sender Falc, the last chairman of the community. Return

Shalom ASZ and Motke

by Zvi ASZ, Nahariya

Translated from the Hebrew by Eli Rubinstein

Every year, in late summer, the writer Shalom Asz came from Paris to visit his elderly mother, who lived at his brother Wolf's house. The great writer's visit became a special experience for all the city's residents, Jews and Christians alike. First, his visit was dedicated to his mother, spending time with her and giving her the respect she deserved. But his mother was also proud of her beloved son and famous writer. While at his mother's house, he greatly enjoyed the large library he had dedicated to his mother. Indeed, when the son returned to his permanent residence, to Paris, his library was a faithful reflection of the spirit and greatness of the son, Shalom.

However, already on the evening of the first day of his visit to Kutno, the writer was impatient. He found no rest for himself. His associates knew the reason — he had not yet met his protagonist, Motke, who was already eagerly awaiting the writer's arrival. And before he could handle addressing his family, acquaintances and fans — he inevitably felt like seeing Motke first.

The meeting of the creator and his protagonist was free, cordial and short. Routine greetings, fragmented, tasteless and senseless words were exchanged. And there was one and only reason in their meeting on Podrzeczna Street — while Motke rubbed with his fingers the thousand-złotys banknote “the present owed” by the writer to the archetype of his famous work. The meeting was over and completed until next year, when the two would meet again, and the writer would once again stick into his hands the note so longed for by Motke. But once — so my father z”l told me — Motke resented the writer for calling him “Motke the thief” in his book. “I'm not a thief,” Motke claimed. “I make a decent living by my profession”… Indeed, in Shalom Asz's view, Motke did not steal the property of others.

Motke scared all the haters of Israel, who harassed “the common Jews.” The Gentiles feared Motke boys like death. A knife, an ax, a hammer, a cleaver, a stone, etc. — these were the weapons of the butchers, porters, bakers and other “common people” who knew how to preserve the dignity of the Jewish people, their lives and property. They had Motke as the head and leader.

When Shalom Asz compared Motke to the “Golem” of Prague or to “Noah Pandre” (by Z. Schneur[1]), Motke did not understand the intent of his friend. But in his heart and in his senses, he understood and said to him: “Shalom, do you hear, Jewish blood will not be free in Kutno!” And between his teeth he hissed “We will not stretch our necks for slaughter” and fell silent.

Quiet and peaceful, without saying “goodbye”, as if his tongue stuck to his palate, the writer turned away.

He knew very well that his choice was not in vain — and that was his reward.

Translator's footnote

  1. Zalman Schneour (1887, Shklov, Belarus – 1959, New York), Hebrew and Yiddish poet and novelist. A descendant of the founder of the Chassidic Lubavitch movement. Return

[Page 259]

The House of Szalom Asz in Bat Yam

Translated from the Yiddish by Carole Turkeltaub Borowitz

Although, in the year 1995 Szalom Asz was determined to settle in Israel, he had not decided which place he would live in. The current mayor of the amazingly growing town, Bat Yam, David Ben-Ari, invited him. The great author was invited to this fine town, with its splendid Mediterranean coast, to build, as he wished, the most up to date and best home. After the death of Szalom Asz this house, with its entire contents, pictures and antique collections, was given by Mrs. Asz to the municipality of Bat-Yam, to be used as an Asz museum and cultural centre – Szalom Asz's House.


House of Szalom Asz in Bat Yam


A collection of personalities stand at the head of the initiators of Szalom Asz's house and Szalom Asz in Bat-Yam, with David Ben-Ari, as director.

In the house, all has remained unchanged – the salon with the valuable paintings' collection by famous artists; Chanukah lamps and other Jewish antiquities, also a bust of Szalom Asz, created by Jakob Epsztajn; Szalom Asz's work room with his famous work table, pens, glasses, pictures and diplomas. There the collected works of Szalom Asz can be found, note books, documents, photographs, books from his library and various works in several languages, press cuttings (about Szalom Asz and his works), antiques from Szalom Asz's collection which were recent gifts to the house. Szalom Asz's Scroll of the Law, childhood works by him, books from a collection “Szalom Asz in the Theatre”, and so on.

Friends of Szalom Asz's house from all over the world constantly send material to enrich the house. The most valuable items were sent by YIVO [Yiddish Research Organisation] in New York, IKUF [Yiddish Cultural Association] in New York, “Congress for Jewish Culture” in New York, Mark Turko from Argentina, Majlech Rawicz (from Montreal, Canada), Nachman Majzel (of blessed memory).

People come often to Szalom Asz's house for courses, cultural events held together with the municipality, which often is the real cultural centre for Bat-Yam and an art centre for visitors from all over and tourists. In the visitor's book you can find many thousand signatures and also dedications in many languages from tourists from the four corners of the world, from all continents.

Szalom Asz's house, serving as a town museum, requires a larger building next door, for concerts, lectures, cultural events and exhibitions. The corner stone was already laid years ago. The plans were completed but the building work has not yet happened. There is no money.

The program of school children's outings to Szalom Asz's house developed very well, which was very important for increasing the popularity of the name of the famous writer Szalom Asz and his work. The visitor receives an education about Szalom Asz and his life and creativity from the director of Szalom Asz's house, Icchak Turkow.

[Page 265]

Mr. Jonathan Majranc

by Yitzhak MAJRANC

I would like these few lines to be a memorial to the figure of my father z”l, who was one of the well–known figures in Jewish Kutno who perished under the Nazi oppressor.

My father, R. Yonathan Majranc z”l, received his education in his youth in the city of Kalisz, with Rabbi Chaim Wax ztz”l, and after his marriage he moved his residence to Kutno, where he was a follower of the late Rabbi Yehoshua Trunk. Dad told me a lot about the genius Rabbi Yehoshua Trunk: the main area of activity of my father z”l was in “Bikur Cholim[1], where he served as chief gabbai. Who will not remember the blessed actions of this institution during the First World War in 1914? After the Russian government, in those days, abandoned Kutno, a committee of dignitaries of the city was established for local authority. Among the 12 members of the committee elected was also my father z”l, who was appointed deputy mayor and served in this post until the establishment of independent Poland. But more than once, father z”l filled the place of the German mayor when he was absent from the city, during the German occupation in that war, and this not in order to receive a reward. Dad was also a judge in the court established by the Germans in our city. And I remember the instructive case of a priest

[Page 266]

brought before the court on a charge of espionage in favor of the Russians. The German judge sentenced the priest to death but Dad, who was sitting at the trial with other public figures, refused to sign this deadly verdict and thus the priest survived death.

When community institutions began to be established in German times, father was the chairman of the community. Dad continued working in public affairs even after the establishment of independent Poland. Although his private business suffered greatly from it, Dad did not stop devoting himself to public affairs. After the war, under Polish rule, father z”l was a member of the city administration for a long time, and won not only the sympathy of the Jewish public but the sympathy of all the citizens of the city knowing that he was dealing with public needs with faith. Only his illness forced him to cease his occupations, as instructed by the doctors.

Father z”l also devoted himself to Zionist activity, before the #&147;Mizrahi” [2] was established in our city, but when the political parties began to organize, father turned away from the activity. Despite this, he continued to contribute to the Zionist funds, buying the Zionist shekel [3] and in the elections for the Polish “Seim[4] he conducted vigorous propaganda for the Zionist list.

Interesting detail: a year before his death, elections were held for the Zionist Congress and for father who was already ill, it was difficult for him to climb the stairs, so the election committee responded and came down to him, to allow him to vote.

The appreciation and respect that the entire Jewish public in Kutno felt for him was also expressed with his passing. Since there were two “Chevrot Kadisha[5] in our city, one of which did not want to accept the authority of the community committee, father z”l tried during his lifetime to make peace between them. But he failed. And when father died on Saturday night, the two burial societies came to our house on Saturday night to take care of his burial and began to quarrel over which of them would get to take care of the deceased. We, the family members, when we saw what was happening, called the rabbi of the city and he ruled that the quarrel between the two companies must end once and for all. And thanks to the deceased, peace was made between them and since then there has been only one burial society. In his obituary for father z”l, the rabbi noted that thanks to the honorable deceased, a long–standing dispute was put to an end.

Dad was a public activist who was always looking for the common good; he was attached to his people in every fiber of his soul.

May his soul be bound in the bundle of eternal life

Translator's footnotes

  1. Visiting the sick. Return
  2. Orthodox Zionist movement established in 1902. Return
  3. Symbolic currency giving the right to vote in Zionist Congress elections Return
  4. Polish parliament Return
  5. Burial societies Return


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